If the toxic ooze of big-time college sports is threatening to smother your sports conscience — that’s a bad thing, you know — Washington forward Darnell Gant offers a lift up as his basketball career winds down.
Degree in hand, humility ingrained, heart on sleeve, he will blubber good-bye Saturday before the noon tip against Arizona.
He’s not ready to concede he will cry during his senior introduction for his last home game. His teammates are counting on it.
“We know he will,” said C.J. Wilcox, grinning. Good chance Wilcox and his teammates will mist a little, too, between laughs.
A self-described “irresponsible knucklehead” when he arrived five years ago from Los Angeles’s Crenshaw High School after averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds his senior year, Gant is now a reserve forward, averaging 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds. Ten games ago, coach Lorenzo Romar replaced his co-captain, after 70 career starts, with a redshirt freshman, Desmond Simmons.
While Simmons hasn’t exactly lit it up as a starter (3.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), the Huskies are 8-2 and Romar isn’t inclined to mess with success.
Nor does the switch jeopardize a potential feat of which Gant is particularly proud — if the Huskies make the field next month, he will be the first in school history to have played in four NCAA tournaments.
“It’s a big deal for me,” he said. “I wanted to be in the history books some kind of way. If this is my opportunity, I want to take full advantage.”
It’s a script with a far different ending than he imagined. Like a lot of touted high school players, particularly those ranked in the top 50 nationally, as was Gant, he thought his trip to Washington was a brief stop on the way to The League.
“I came in thinking NBA in two years, if that,” he said. “I still have confidence I can make it in the NBA, but it’s a whole different mindset now. Back then, I thought I’d use college as a little keystone to get me there. But college has done a lot more for me that I thought it would.”
Talking about Gant’s non-basketball progress, Romar’s voice rose.
“He is a great example of what college can do for someone,” he said, listing growth in academics, personal discipline and social interaction. Or, as Gant put it:
“I did everything I wasn’t (expected) to do.”
That includes a degree in performing arts, completed in June. He had a fifth year in school to take advantage of because he redshirted his freshman year. The voluntary sit-out was a sign of imminent maturity, because became aware he wasn’t ready for Pac-10 ball. Plainly and painfully, burly teammates Jon Brockman and Artem Wallace pounded the bejeezus out of him in practice.
“That was back when the Pac-10 was the best conference in the nation,” he said. “These guys were beating me up in practice, so what was going to happen in the games? It just helped me be mentally stronger.”
Gant grew up sufficiently to start 45 of the first 50 games of his UW time, including all but one game as a freshman. But the career arc flattened out, even though he’s added an outside shot (18 of 50 three-pointers, 36.8 percent this season).
Asked whether he felt his career turned out all right, he said, “Yes and no. Individually, I wish I did more. But when you win, you’re remembered more. Sometimes you can make a memorable score, but your team never did anything. The years I’ve been here, we’ve won. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.”
The transformation is more marked off the floor.
Calling himself “goofy” as a freshman, he said college life made him over.
“Through my time, I’m a different guy, a different character . . . more mature,” he said. “I see life from a different perspective, thanks to Romar, the coaching staff and my teammates who’ve been through it with me.
“I met a lot of people who are going to be there the rest of my life. I learned a lot of things about becoming a man and a wiser person.”
He learned something early that doesn’t come to many until late, if at all.
“The struggle was the best part,” he said. “I wasn’t playing much, and others passed me up. That humbled me and made me work harder. These last two years I’m proud of myself, for the most part. I came here thinking one way, and now it’s a whole different light.”
After his college career ends next month, Gant will give pro ball a try, and is enough of a realist to know he will probably wind up on a team overseas. First, there’s Arizona State Thursday before Arizona Saturday, when he expects family and friends to part of the raucous home finale that will salute him and his fellow senior, seldom-used but highly popular Brendan Sherrer, who may get the courtesy senior start.
A lot is running through Gant’s mind.
“That crying thing . . . I’m on the edge of that,” he said, referring to Saturday. “(The senior ceremony) last year got to me a little. To know what they went through to get there, that’s why I’m on the border. Don’t know whether I will, or not.
“There will be thousands of people honoring myself and Brendan. So many of them have helped me along the way. I never got a lot of negativity about me from the media or in general. Everybody has had a nice thing to say.”
No reason to stop now. His teammates tease him with the nickname “Grandpa.” Sure, he’s the oldest of this adolescent crew. He’s also old-fashioned enough to want to do hard job well for its own sake, making him one highly respected dude.